Category: lifestyle

Losing Our Religion Online

Surfing-the-Internet

The more we’re online as a society, the less religious we are.

That’s according to MIT’s Technology Review which features a new study by computer scientist Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering. Downey concludes that “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”

Downey’s study analyzed statistics from 9,000 respondents to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey in 2010. In 1990, only about 8 percent of the U.S. population checked the “none” box when asked about their religious affiliation. By 2010, the percentage of “nones” had risen to 18%.

The increase in the religiously-unaffiliated has sparked numerous articles from church thinkers about the reason for this sudden shift. After all, America is and has been among the most religious of all nations worldwide. Evangelicals particularly have increased their profile in the public arena.

However, despite America’s conservative turn, Downey’s data confirms an almost parallel increase in internet usage and lack of religious affiliation.

In 1990, Internet usage was virtually zero. Although the Internet was active, individuals had to access it through portals like AOL or Compuserve. However, in 1994, two factors boosted internet usage. First, new servers were added to increase the traffic capacity of the World Wide Web. Secondly, the Mosaic web browser, the first popular internet interface, facilitated the quick ascent of Internet usage. In 1995, Netscape’s browser added search capability which revolutionized internet surfing. From that point, Internet usage in America climbs dramatically.

Coincidentally, at about that same time, the percentage of the religiously-unaffiliated — the “nones” — also begins to rise in an almost identical arc.

However, as in most studies, Downey identifies more factors in play in the increase of the religiously-unaffilliated than just an increase in Internet usage. Downey concludes that 25% of the rise in “nones” can be explained by a decrease in those who are raised in a religiously-affiliated home. In addition to religious orphans, 5% of the increase in “nones” can be attributed to an increase in the number of college-educated Americans.

Downey’s study contends, however, that the increase in Internet usage explains at least 25% of the increase in the religious “nones.” After adjusting for other factors such as age, rural or urban residence, and socio-economic status, Downey is convinced the data points to Internet usage as the new cause for the drop in religious affiliation.

What does this mean for churches and denominations? I think the study has three implications:

1. It’s not the Internet’s fault. The increase of the “nones” may be one of the unintended consequences of the Internet, but religious institutions should not begin a campaign to demonize Internet usage. After all, Internet access is an essential component of our increasingly digital lives. From email to Twitter to Facebook to search functions, the Internet is our always-on gateway to the world of information.

2. The Internet enables communities of like-minded individuals. Prior to the internet,  atheists and agnostics were a stark minority in typical American communities. Now, however, atheists and agnostics can find supportive communities online. An individual no longer has to believe in God to find social acceptance.

In addition many people identify now as “spiritual, but not religious” — meaning that they see no need of an institutional expression of their personal faith. These individuals would also be classified as “nones.” These spiritual “nones” can now cobble together their own spirituality from websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, finding spiritual aphorisms that function as their new inspirational texts.

3. The convergence of Internet usage, religious orphans, and higher education holds clues for religious institutions. The first and most obvious thing this triad of correlations says to me is that religious institutions cannot live in the past technologically, theologically, or educationally if they hope to reach today’s “nones.”

Downey also noted that younger groups reported more “nones” than older groups. That is not a surprising result, as younger adults are more Internet-savvy, better educated, and less likely to be raised in a religious household.

Finally, one interesting footnote to Downey’s findings is this: adding together the 25% of the “nones” who were not brought up in religious homes, to the 5% who are college-educated, and the 25% attributed to the rise in Internet usage, we are still left with about 45% of the increase in “nones” unexplained.

The opportunity for churches and denominations in regard to the unaffiliated might be in figuring out the reason for the other 45%. Rather than railing against the Internet, colleges, or homelife, Christians might be better served to investigate what in our contemporary way of life contributes to loss of faith for about 25-million of our fellow citizens.

Six Reasons Why I Don’t Have a Bucket List

bucket-list-for-couplesA Facebook friend of mine recently commented on a trip she took. “It was on our bucket list, so we decided to do it” she wrote enthusiastically. I don’t have a bucket list. Here’s why:

1. The whole thing smacks of the Addams Family.

You remember The Addams Family, don’t you?. First they were a cartoon series in The New Yorker, then a hit TV sitcom in the 1960s. The Addams Family, not to be confused with the Munsters of the same era, made the macabre look normal. Speaking of the macabre, a “bucket list” is a compendium of things you want to do before you “kick the bucket.” Hence the name “bucket list.” Death and fun just don’t seem to belong together. Too creepy for me.

2. I worry about what happens when I complete my bucket list.

When you finish your bucket list, do you just kick the bucket? Or do you add more items to your bucket list to hold the Grim Reaper at bay? I figure I’ve got a good 30 or so years left and I’m not about to jeopardize that by running out of things on my bucket list.

3. Once you put something on your bucket list, can you take it off?

Suppose I decide I’m getting a little too old to climb Mt. Everest? Can I take it off my bucket list? And if so, do I have to put something equally exotic back on my bucket list? And what happens if you take lots of stuff off your bucket list, and then you finish it? Which brings us back to item #2 above. See, there’s no end to the anxiety involved in making and maintaining a bucket list.

4. I would be guilty of bucket list envy.

Suppose I’m at a party and we’re talking about bucket lists. I say a trip to Disney World is on my bucket list. The guy next to me says, “I plan to wrestle alligators in the Amazon.” Which may be the last thing on his bucket list, but still it trumps my Disney World and ups the stakes. What if your bucket list is better than mine? Can I copy off someone else’s bucket list?

5. I find the whole idea of planning my life around a series of things to do before I die rather disconcerting.

I know this sounds a lot like #1, but there is a nuanced difference. Creepy is one thing, but to have my whole life oriented around the phrase “before I die” — a.k.a., “kick the bucket” — seems to me to be weird, not to mention morbid (back to #1, again).

6. Finally, I don’t have a bucket list because I believe in cliches.

Cliches are cliches for a reason. Well-worn observations like “things change,” “you’ll get over it,” and “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” all seem to weigh against having a bucket list. Honestly, things do change.  I did get over wanting to do some of the things I thought I would like to do — like own a PT Cruiser.  And sometimes things don’t work out like you thought they would. The best laid bucket lists of mice and men, etc, etc…

Frankly, I had rather go right on living my rather simple life of pastoring a small church, reading good books, only going places I can drive to, and seeing my grandchildren often but not too much. Not much of a bucket list, but then it’s not creepy and it’s worked for me so far. Gomez Addams, take note!

Who Do You Trust?

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The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

No Irish Need Apply: Group Prejudice in America

urlMy family — the Warnocks — are of Scots-Irish ancestry. According to family legend, we left Scotland and arrived in Ireland just in time for the Irish potato famine. Call it bad timing, I suppose, but from that difficult experience three Warnock brothers came from Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century. Apparently the original family name was McIlvernock, indicating a native Scottish origin. But over the generations, the McIl was dropped and Vernock became Warnock, so by the time the Warnock brothers came to America, their name no longer betrayed their heritage. My paternal grandmother’s family name suffered a similar modification. They were Irish — the O’Callahams — but, because of prejudice against the Irish in America, they dropped the O’ and became just the Callahams.

An aunt relayed those stories about our lineage to me long years ago, and they stayed with me. She noted that when our Irish-immigrant ancestors arrived in the United States in the 19th century, prejudice against the Irish was at a fever pitch. When help wanted signs were posted in store windows many contained the caution, “No Irish Need Apply.” So much for the luck of the Irish.

It seems the dominant majority in America has always designated one or more groups as an inferior group in our society. In the 19th century, ethnic epithets tagged each arriving immigrant people — Irish were “micks;” Germans were “krauts;” Italians were “wops;” Spaniards were “dagos;” and, I’m sure there were other groups that became tagged with similar expressions of bigotry.

However, immigrants weren’t the only people who were labeled with derisive nicknames. Native Americans were referred to as “savages” or “redskins.” Sports teams like the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, and the Atlanta Braves receive continuing, and I think justified, criticism for using nicknames and images which Native Americans find offensive. Of course, the ultimate prejudicial identifier used by whites of African Americans is what we now refer to as the “n-word” because its use is socially offensive in public discourse.

In 21st century America, immigrants have become the new target of group prejudice, regardless of country of origin. Hopefully, we who are third-or-more generation Americans will remember that unless we are of Native American ancestry, our forebears who came to this country were also immigrants.

Group prejudice targets whole segments of population based on country of origin, but that is not the only criteria for group prejudice that exists. We also harbor prejudice against other groups for other reasons in this nation. In part, the recent activism of the “new atheists” was to counter the prejudice directed at atheists and agnostics as a group simply because they do not believe in the god to which most of society pays lip service. Of course, groups who do believe can also become the targets of prejudice, such as Mormons who were hounded out of Ohio in the 19th century, but who eventually found a home in the Great Salt Lake area. Mitt Romney’s candidacy helped to dispel the use of religious prejudice as a political weapon, but prejudice against religious groups still exists.

Now, we as a society are grappling with the issue of gay marriage. In doing so, we are having to confront our own prejudices against another group, the gay community. This group also has been the target of derogatory name-calling. Until the activist gay community adopted the term, “queer” was a widely-accepted heterosexual descriptor for homosexual men.

Of course, many evangelicals have described their ambivalent attitude toward gays with the phrase, “we hate the sin, but love the sinner.” We are now hearing that this is not comforting or encouraging to the gay community. They do not want to be referred to as “sinners” because they see nothing wrong with who they are. Behind the idea of homosexuality as sin is the long-held evangelical belief that homosexuality is a choice, and not genetically determined. Therefore, the argument goes, those who choose homosexuality are choosing to sin.

Clearly, this understanding is being challenged in our society today. How evangelicals will evolve on this issue is still up for grabs, but I believe that prejudice against homosexuals as a group eventually will become socially unacceptable, just as prejudice against other groups has also become socially unacceptable. Does that mean that churches cannot set their own criteria for participating members, including conduct based on the Bible’s ethical principles? Absolutely not, but personally, I have become more wary of prejudice against whole groups of people than I used to be.

Anytime we lump all members of any group into the same pot, let’s remember that not all Christians (or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists) believe exactly the same, not all Irish are hot-tempered, not all Asians are inscrutable, not all Italians are good cooks, and not all Germans are analytical. Stereotypical group characterization does not make our society better, lead to more understanding, or foster dialogue. Perhaps one day we will no longer see the need to denigrate another group of people in order to feel good about ourselves.

New Lift Makes Our Sanctuary Accessible

New lift makes our sanctuary accessible to those with mobility difficulties.
New lift makes our sanctuary accessible to those with mobility difficulties.

Our church recently installed a lift at the entrance from our educational/office  building into the sanctuary. This is the entrance to the sanctuary most of our members use on Sunday mornings, especially if they attend Sunday School. Although we have a wheelchair ramp at the front entrance of the church, and an elevator at the rear entrance, the 7-steps between the ed building and the sanctuary posed a barrier to those in wheelchairs or those unable to climb stairs easily.

Our lift project took about a year from the time our Building and Grounds Committee began studying the feasibility of installing a lift at this entrance. The challenge was to cut through the solid masonry wall which separated the ed building from the sanctuary. To support the new opening, the contractor had to install a couple of steel beams, and do a lot of reframing under the lift location as well. The total cost for the project including demolition, remodeling to accommodate the lift, the lift and installation, and new floor and wall finishes was about $70,000. We have a three-year note, but hope to pay off the project

Entrance to the sanctuary before remodeling to install the new lift.
Entrance to the sanctuary before remodeling to install the new lift.

well in advance of that.

Our church is now 100% compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and all buildings and restrooms are equipped appropriately for wheelchair accessibility. For us, doing the work necessary to welcome all persons regardless of their mobility issues was important for our ministry to the community. What challenges is your church facing in welcoming and accommodating persons with mobility issues?

6 Dramatic Trends Churches Are Ignoring

Despite the adoption of coffee bars, powerpoint presentations, and full-stage lighting, churches are seldom on the cutting edge when it comes to addressing demographic trends.  Here are six dramatic trends that are not being addressed adequately by local churches, church networks, or denominations.

If we continue to ignore these trends for another decade, churches will continue to see an erosion of members, attendance, and relevance in a rapidly changing American culture.

Gleaned from “Six Disruptive Demographic Trends: What Census 2010 Will Reveal” published by The Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, these trends will impact churches as well as the U.S. economy.

1. The South has several new faces.

“…between 2000 and 2008, the South was the preferred destination for movers in nearly all of the major demographic groups, including blacks, Hispanics, the elderly, and the foreign born.”

While the Northeast and Midwest grew by 6.5 and 9.4 percent respectively, the South attracted over half (51.4%) of the 24.8 million increase in the United States population. The West garnered about one-third of the total U.S. growth, but was an net exporter of 2 out of the 4 groups mentioned.

Of course, the South isn’t called the Bible belt for nothing, but established churches in the South tend to be single race churches, white and black, with few examples of churches designed to address the issue of the South’s growing multiculturalism. Mark de Ymaz in Arkansas is doing it, and Soong-Chan Rah writes about it, but at the local church ministry level few are addressing this multicultural growth trend.

2.  The minority majority is coming.

In the 1980s when I first visited Fuller Seminary’s campus in Pasadena, I was told that there was no majority group in Pasadena – everyone was a minority. That trend is now a growing reality across America. The UNC report calls it the “browning of America,” which is a phrase I don’t like because it pits white against “browns,” and if not carefully stated becomes a pejorative description of those not-white.

But the fact remains that non-white population growth is outstripping white growth dramatically. Between 2000 and 2009, Asians increased by 31 percent; blacks by 10 percent; and, Hispanics by 36 percent, while non-Hispanic whites increased by only 2 percent. Immigration patterns and birth rates are the primary drivers of this coming minority majority. By 2050, the non-Hispanic white population will fall below 50 percent for the first time in our nation’s history. No group will be the majority population, and that holds both great challenge and great promise for churches in the next 40 years.

3.  Out-marriage is in.

Same gender marriage has grabbed the headlines, but cross-ethnic marriages are the quiet growing reality.

“Among newly married couples, the out-marriage rate was 14.6 percent in 2008, up from 6.7 percent in 1980,” according to the UNC report. In addition, those marrying outside their ethnic group tend to be more, not less, educated.

Churches in our community (rural, Southern Virginia) tend not to have interracial couples, although there are many in our community. As this out-marriage trend grows, churches will need to become more conscious and sensitive to these ethnically-blended families. Church literature and advertising will need to run images of cross-ethnic couples and families in order to indicate a church’s welcome to these blended marriages.

4. The baby boomers aren’t babies anymore.

“On January 1, 2011, the first baby boomer born in America turned 65 and set into motion what we refer to as the “silver tsunami.” Almost 80-million baby boomers will leave the U. S. workforce in the next 20 years.

Churches already skew older than the national population average, and this will only become more pronounced in the next two decades. Seeker-sensitive churches that sprang up to attract baby boomers in the 1980s will be impacted by the aging of this group.

While churches almost always want to attract young families, by default and intention there will be churches that focus primarily on senior adults. Senior adult ministry for and with older adults will not just be a sub-group of larger congregations. Entire churches will be senior-led, benefitting from the years of experience, education, skills, and resources this group possesses.

5. It’s no longer a man’s world.

According to the report, men “bore 80 percent of total U. S. job loss between 2007 and 2009” leading some to proclaim the “end of men” in the economic market. Out of ten college graduates over the past decade, 6 were women and 4 were men. Women own 40 percent of all U.S. businesses, and women hold 43 percent of all executive, administrative, and managerial positions in the U.S. economy.

“Women are close to surpassing men as the numerical majority in the paid U.S. workforce.” In addition, in “married couple households, women now account for 47 percent of household income”, and 63.3 percent of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinner, up from 27.7 percent in 1967.

The implication for churches is obvious in several areas. Ministries to men and women need to recognize these new workplace realities. Ozzie and Harriett are dead, and churches need to deal with gender issues like it was 2012, not 1952.

6. Grandparents are the new parents.

“In 2010, 4.9 million American children lived in grandparent-headed households.” This is an increase of 26 percent versus a 4 percent increase for children living in all other type households.

Increasingly, these grandparent-led households also include one or more adult children who are parents of the grandchildren. And, 40 percent of children were living in home headed by a grandmother only.

This increasing family-type challenges the traditional church idea of what it means to be a family, and provides opportunity for churches to meet the unique needs of grandparent-led households. That these households tend to be non-white and economically-stressed provides additional challenges for church ministry.

Each one of these trends challenges the traditional church’s idea of its community, its membership, its inclusivity, and its understanding of gender and race issues. Small churches will face unique challenges, but also unique opportunities in addressing these trends.

However, if denominations, churches, and church networks continue to ignore these society-shaping developments, we will miss the great opportunities for growth, outreach, and church revitalization in the 21st century.

Sermon: Wall Street and the Apostle Paul

Here’s the sermon I ‘m preaching tomorrow from 1 Timothy 6:6-19, titled “Wall Street and the Apostle Paul.”

Wall Street and The Apostle Paul

1 Timothy 6:6-19 NIV

6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

11But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Wall Street Meets The Apostle Paul

We’re in Paul’s first letter to young Timothy again today.  Remember last week we talked about Paul’s instruction to Timothy’s church in this letter; and his encouragement for Timothy and his church to pray for everybody when they gathered, and everybody included the emperor and all who were in positions of governmental leadership.

Well, today we have another timely topic straight from this letter of Paul to Timothy.  The entire letter of 1 Timothy is, as we noted last week, instruction to Timothy on how to handle various situations in his church.  Today we come to the topic of money.  And we find out that human nature hasn’t changed that much.

In a kind of Wall-Street-meets-Saint-Paul mashup, Paul speaks not only to first century concerns about how Christians should deal with money, but also 21st century concerns.  I’m picking on Wall Street today a little because I was horrified when the chairman of Goldman-Sachs said that his investment bank was “doing God’s work.” And, amazingly he said that in the midst of the world’s financial crisis, right before his firm paid millions of dollars in bonuses to some of the same people that helped create the crisis.  But, my point is that Goldman-Sachs illustrates the very thing Paul is telling Timothy to avoid — the love of, and misuse, of money.

But, we really can’t pick on Wall Street too much today because Paul is writing about Christians, not Roman citizens in general.  Paul could no more control the greed of first century Rome than we can control the greed of those who deal in millions each day on the world’s financial markets.  Interestingly, some of the richest people of Paul’s day were politicians, so things haven’t changed.  But back to this business of Christians and money.

Of course, Jesus said a lot about money and possessions to his followers.  Jesus said things like “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” and “don’t worry about what you’re going to wear or eat because God clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air.”

And, Jesus indicated that we are to be good stewards — “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Of course, everything is God’s which was Jesus’ point that day, I believe.

But here we come to some really practical advice for how a young pastor is to deal with money and with people who have money, people who are rich.  So, let’s take a look at Paul’s advice to a young pastor on the subject of money.

The Gospel Isn’t A Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

We have to go back and pick up a couple of verses that precede what we read in today’s lectionary reading for this to make as much sense as it should.  Here’s what Paul has said before verse 6 —

“If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” – 1 Timothy 6:3-5 NIV

The first thing Paul wants Timothy to know is that the Gospel isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.  Apparently there were those who were teaching and preaching false doctrine, and thought that because they were preachers, they deserved to get rich.

And, we have the same problem today.  I recently watched a YouTube video of a Baptist pastor explaining to his megachurch congregation that their church didn’t really own its own private jet, as the local TV station had reported.  “No,” he said, “we just lease it.”  And of course, from time to time they had to charter other private jets to fly the pastor various places in the world.

Then there was the incident when the head of a major missions agency was flown to London for the premiere of a movie.  The tickets cost about $12,000.  Of course, the movie had a Christian theme, but it still boggles the mind.

Rich preachers and ministries have even attracted the attention of the United States Congress.  Conservative Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, in 2007, announced an investigation into the finances of six major TV evangelists — Bennie Hinn, Paula White, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland.  Only 3 of the 6 replied, and the others cited constitutional arguments against complying with the Senate Finance Committee’s request.  It is the same Eddie Long who is now in the news accused of inappropriate physical relationships with young men in his congregation, traveling on worldwide trips where they stayed in luxury hotels.

Creflo Dollar, appropriately named, preaches a gospel of prosperity, and drives a Rolls-Royce.  He said, according to Bloomberg BusinessNews,

“But when your church congregation — 20,000 at that time — come to you and say, “Pastor, we want you to drive the best,” I’m not going to turn that down. It would be a dishonor to the people that gave it to me.”

And even mainline churches are not exempt.  The famous Riverside Church in New York, where Harry Emerson Fosdick preached, the church founded by John D. Rockefeller, lost their pastor last year because some members of the congregation didn’t think he should make over $600,000 per year.

So, this isn’t just a first century problem.  It’s a human nature problem.

The Real Source of Contentment

Paul says that the real source of contentment is “godliness.”  That’s the great gain that Timothy needs to look for, not an increase in his 401K.  Paul goes on to say that if we have food on the table and clothes on our backs, then that’s enough.  Of course, it isn’t in today’s world, but Paul is talking about the necessities of life, the basics.  Which sounds very much like Jesus’ reminder that God clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds.  Again, food and clothes, and we’re content.

And why should we be content with food and clothes?  Two reasons:  1) we didn’t bring anything into the world; and, 2) we aren’t taking anything out.  And in verse 17, Paul says,

“17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Again, echoing the words of Jesus, “Put your hope in God,” Paul says, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Who Are These Rich People Paul Is Talking About?

But we need to pay close attention here, because there is something we must not miss.  We must not miss the people Paul is talking about.  Paul says, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant or put their hope in wealth…”

Remember that Paul is telling young Timothy how to manage the church, how to deal with church folks.  Paul is talking about rich church members in Timothy’s church.

And guess who that includes?  Us.  All of us.  Me, you, your neighbor sitting beside you today, the choir, everybody here.  We’re all rich.

Of course, we may not feel that rich.  But compared to the first century, we are extremely rich.  And compared to the rest of the world, we are absolutely rich.  And that’s what Americans are known for — being rich.

When I was working in China a lot, the factory in Nantong that I was working with sent their chief electronics engineer to the United States for a 3-week trip.  It was my job to pick him up at the airport, and then spend the next three weeks traveling with him in the U.S. to visit our customers.

I remember picking him up when he arrived at Chicago’s Midway airport.  I had flown from Nashville to meet him there, and I had hired a car to take us to our hotel.  That’s pretty standard practice out of Midway, and you usually get a Lincoln Towncar.  But that night we got a stretch limo for the same price.

When Mr. Gu got in the limo, he looked at me and said, “America, number one!” And then he asked me to take his picture sitting in the back of this luxurious car.

So, that’s what we’re known for around the world.  When I was in Hong Kong, I ate at a restaurant called Dan Ryan’s.  Dan Ryan’s was a Chicago-style restaurant that served good ole American food.  After a couple of weeks in China I was ready for something familiar, and Dan Ryan’s was famous for barbecued ribs.

But as a disclaimer to their Hong Kong patrons, the restaurant had this warning printed on its menu — “We serve American portions.”  Which meant, “sit back because you’re about to get a lot of food!”

So, we’re the rich church members Paul is talking about and talking to.  What should we do with our comparative wealth?

Rich in Good Deeds, Generous, Willing To Share

Here’s what Paul says to Timothy about his rich church members:

18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

We’re to do good with what God has given us.  Now that sounds pretty simple, but let me tell you a story to put a human face on how hard this might be.

Chris Heuertz and his wife are the International Directors of Word Made Flesh, a Christian organization that ministers with the poor in 11 developing countries.  On a visit to India, Chris and his wife were in the home of an Indian family.  Sujana, one of the daughters in the family,  noticed Chris’s red-checked shirt.  She said that she had stitched a shirt just like that in the factory where she worked.

She asked Chris if she could see the label.  Sure enough, it said, “Made in India.”  With some pride, Sujana explained that her factory made his shirt.  Then she asked Chris how much the shirt cost in the United States.  It was a shirt Chris bought at The Gap.

Embarrassed, he told her it cost $40.  Forty dollars was more than Sujana made in an entire month.  She earned less than $1 a day, working 10-hours a day, 6-days a week.  And it took her income combined with her brothers and sisters, and her mother and father to eke out a meager livelihood in their village.

Chris said he recalled the words from Isaiah, “The plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?”  Those words from Isaiah 3:14 convicted Chris of his misuse of money.

Chris decided that he would buy stock in The Gap, hoping it would go up, so he could give the profits to Sujana and her family.  Unfortunately, the stock went down, and Chris lost money.

But then he decided that he would impose on himself a Personal Retail Equality Tax — he called it a PRET tax — everytime he bought clothes from a store that he knew Sujana’s factory supplied. So, he added 12% to the purchase price of each item, then banked the money.  At the end of each year, Chris sends the money to Sujana’s family.  This has enabled them to move into a home with indoor plumbing and to send some of their children for further education.*

My point in telling that story is this — how we handle what we have, our wealth, demonstrates our contentment with godliness, or our attachment to our stuff.

I like Paul’s advice to Timothy — “tell people to be rich in good deeds, generous, willing to share.”  That’s good advice to us rich Christians.

* This story is from Friendship at the Margins by Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl.